This post originally appeared in July 2016.
I’ll never forget the moment my wife told me she was pregnant with our first child. We were close to finishing our first year working at an international school in Thailand. Prior to our overseas move in 2002, many people thought we would only stay for two years, the length of our initial contract. “Get that overseas traveling thing out of your system and then when you’re ready to start your family, you’ll return to the U.S.,” we were told. However, this was never the game plan for me and my wife. We knew that if we enjoyed living abroad, we would probably stay indefinitely. And we also thought, “People have babies all over the world. Why do we need to return to the U.S. to have a baby?”
Our first son was born in Bangkok in 2004, both healthy and big. Contrary to the worry of some about giving birth abroad, our stay in the hospital was wonderful and we received top-notch care. Shortly after the birth of my son, my mother came to visit. She highly approved of our international lifestyle because noticed the similarities between Thailand and her native country of Trinidad and Tobago, including the climate and the laidback, friendly nature of the people. However, at one point during her trip, my mother looked at me and asked, “Are you going to raise that boy Black?” I knew what she meant. I replied, “Mom, first and foremost, I just want to keep this child alive and safe from harm.”
We are a biracial family (my wife is American and white). Even while overseas, we ensure that our children learn about their Black/mixed identity from us as well as from my family back in the U.S. We are just one of a few interracial marriages in our extended family and there is no divisiveness based on race. My children have benefited from living abroad by being surrounded by international and cultural diversity. Many of their friends are from different countries and ethnic heritages and my wife and I also have a very diverse group of friends and colleagues. My plan has generally been to address racial and social issues as my children have gotten older and whenever situations have cropped up.
As a father raising biracial children abroad, I have appreciated that locals in the countries where we have lived (especially Thailand and Oman) are a shade of brown.
Living in Oman was an especially great experience for my children and me because it was the first time that we had lived in a country where we resembled the local populace. Many Omanis just assumed that my children and I were Omani based on our appearance.
That’s not to say that we haven’t had our share of interesting racial experiences while abroad. When our eldest was 6 months old, we traveled from Bangkok to Shanghai, China during one of our holidays. We were walking down the street and I was pushing the stroller with my son and my wife was by my side. You know that feeling you get when you are being followed? I got that feeling.
I looked behind me and saw that people were running to catch up with us; primarily middle aged Chinese people and older. They would stand or kneel in front of the stroller and slowly stare at our son, me, and my wife. After doing this, many of them gave us a huge smile, a thumbs up, and said in their best English, “Good job!” Others would walk away a little perplexed or confused. My wife and I found this whole experience interesting and somewhat hilarious. I’ve found that it’s good to have a healthy sense of humor towards others and yourself when living internationally.
Even with the extra attention in China, I tell people that as an African-American man with biracial boys, my family and I are much safer living overseas. If my children choose move to their passport country, the fears and concerns that I have will be for their safety. Especially since my wife and I will likely still be working overseas. With the ridiculous gun violence, police brutality towards men of color, and persistent racism in the U.S., I wonder how my boys will be perceived. Many Americans will likely identify our two biracial boys as Black and since my eldest son is big for his age, some people may find him threatening.
In addition to fears for their physical safety, I also worry about how to teach my children to navigate sharing their expat experiences with friends and family back home.
My own early encounter with this minefield happened when I was catching up with a former colleague of mine from the U.S. I was describing the school where I worked in Oman, my job responsibilities, and the diversity of the students. She looked at me with a glazed look in her eyes and commented, “Ryan, I have no idea what you are talking about.” I appreciated my former colleague’s honesty and made a mental note of what I could share of my international experience for future conversations.
This is a lesson I have shared with my children. If my children decide to attend college/university in the U.S. I know they will have to navigate the racial politics of people constantly trying to categorize them and place them in boxes. Strangers will try to figure out, “So, where are you from? What are you?” And, there will be those who will try to deny the diverse, life-changing experiences my children have had from their international upbringing, essentially rejecting who they are as people.
We have had to explain to them that they can’t reveal too much of their expat experiences, especially when we are back in North America visiting friends and family. The fact is that many people may not have a frame of reference for their international upbringing and many may even think that my sons are bragging.
By choosing to raise your children overseas, the world becomes your classroom. The many teachable moments that pop up for you and your children will shape who your children become and how they approach life. While I’m still working out the best path to guide them, being a father and raising a family overseas has been an incredible and challenging experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.